Last summer, when we got our first chance to see the 2011 Broncos on a practice field following the NFL lockout, the quarterbacks were Kyle Orton, Brady Quinn, Tim Tebow and Adam Weber.
Monday, when we got our first chance to see the 2012 Broncos on a practice field, the quarterbacks were Peyton Manning, Caleb Hanie, Brock Osweiler and . . . Adam Weber.
If you conclude from this that Weber is the veteran of this year’s group, welcome back from your trip to Neptune. Hope it was fun.
Change is a constant in the NFL, but not like this. In sixteen months, John Elway has remade the Broncos in his image, and nowhere is it more obvious than at his old position. In a single offseason, the Broncos went from an early 20th century option offense to a thoroughly 21st century aerial attack.
“Now’s when you kind of form the identity of your football team,” Manning said following Monday’s workout, the only one of three days of organized team activities this week the inquiring minds were permitted to watch. “I’m looking forward to being part of that.”
The change in the offense was obvious to even the casual observer. Near the end of a one hour, 45-minute workout, Manning led the offense in the no-huddle, two-minute drill, reading the defense on the fly and hitting open receivers in the numbers or hands, most of them check-down routes.
“I’ve always believed that you develop your timing for the passing game in the offseason,” Manning said. “I don’t think you can just show up in September and expect to be on the same page. What a great opportunity for these receivers going against these corners. If you can’t get better going against some of these top cover corners, it’s just not meant to be. It’s a great challenge for everybody. Offseason workouts are a great time to make an impression on the coaches. This is where roster spots are made and the coaches are constantly evaluating. So there are a lot of benefits to this work.”
In the excitement over Elway’s overhaul of the offense, it’s easy to overlook the addition of veteran cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Drayton Florence to the roster. Along with holdover Champ Bailey, they give the Broncos a much-improved cover capacity that should test the team’s young receivers as the offense comes together this summer.
Two receivers begin with the advantage of having worked with Manning in Indianapolis — tight end Jacob Tamme, who caught one of his throws in the two-minute drill, and slot receiver Brandon Stokley, who, like Manning, will be 36 by the time training camp opens.
“Tamme and I had a talk today,” Manning said. “We were both excited about this practice, probably more excited than most other guys. It’s a new team for us, a new place. Stokley, this is his second stint here. But this is an exciting time. (Offensive Coordinator Mike) McCoy was great about, ‘Hey, we’re working hard, this is serious business, but it’s important to be excited out there, to be encouraged, enthusiastic and have fun.’
“I think we’ll do that all through OTAs and minicamp. I thought the tempo of practice was excellent. Guys were flying around, a fast-moving practice, upbeat—that’s the way I like to work. It was good to see that from everybody today.”
Manning was barking orders during the hurry-up offense just as he did for so many years with the Colts, motioning players into position.
“He’s not bashful, let’s just put it that way,” Stokley said with a smile.
“Guys that command the respect of their teammates can do that,” Tamme said. “He’s a guy you know is going to do everything he can to be his best every day. That’s what you want in a quarterback — a guy that leads, and he’s certainly one of the best.”
Manning’s former teammates seem more comfortable letting him do the talking, which is another example of the tone set by many team leaders in sports. For example, when I asked Stokley about the differences between the new Broncos offense and the old Colts offense, he politely demurred.
“No comment on that,” he said. “I mean, why would I tell you that? That’s just going to help the other teams out. Everybody will just have to wait and see.”
Manning was somewhat more expansive on this topic. The new Broncos offense, he said, is not simply a transplant of the old Colts offense.
“You’ve got different terminology and different players,” he said. “There’s no question it’s different. So the more repetition you get — I do feel on-the-field reps are the best type of reps. There’s classroom work, which is important, you have to study and take your notes, but there’s nothing quite like being out there on the field, executing the play, going against fast defensive players like Von (Miller) and Champ. That’s the best way to learn, in my opinion.”
Bailey, along with Elvis Dumervil, was one of the Broncos’ leading lobbyists while Manning was determining his destination as a free agent. Anxious to compete for a championship in the final years of his career, Bailey believes the new quarterback puts the Broncos on a different level.
“It feels good to know he’s going to be on my side,” the eleven-time Pro Bowl selection said. “What I saw today, he’s going to give us some good work. We might not see a quarterback like that all year. It’s going to be something that’s going to get us prepared for games.”
Manning continued to avoid talking specifically about his recovery from the multiple neck surgeries that kept him out of action all last year, but he acknowledged that missing a full season means he has some catching up to do.
“I certainly have different checkpoints,” he said. “I kind of like (getting) hit. There’s no question that this work will be significant for me, because going against air is one thing, but getting the snap — for me, there’s the physical challenge and the mental challenge of being able to execute these new plays, knowing where these new receivers are going to be and also seeing what you can do.
“There’s no question it’s a different mentality for me in these OTAs (than) it has been in other years because of all the changes. But I look forward to the challenge. I just can’t tell you how important these OTAs are. I think they’re important for everybody, but when you’re a new player on a new team coming off an injury, they take on added importance. I thought today was an excellent start and I look forward to the rest of the time we’re here.”
Manning continues to describe his recovery as a process. Watching him throw, it was hard to distinguish him from the player we saw for so many years with the Colts.
“This injury has been a new experience for me,” he said. “I’m following the orders of ‘Greek’ (Broncos trainer Steve Antonopulos) and (strength and conditioning Coach) Luke (Richesson), who have been excellent in my rehab and training. I’m taking their orders. I realize I still have work to do. But any time you can go out there and go through a practice, make a good throw or if you have a mistake you can learn from it, I think that’s progress. I still have work to do, like I’ve said all along, but I look forward to making that progress and putting the work in to make that progress.”
The organization is a little less cautious describing his progress.
“Dealing with the physical part, he’s getting better every day,” coach John Fox said. “It’s something we felt good about, our medical people felt good about. His progress has been outstanding. We’re excited about where he is.”
Elway was on the field for most of Monday’s workout, standing alongside Manning during one period when other quarterbacks were running the drills. Seldom has so much quarterbacking expertise occupied such a small space. In the space of his sixteen months in charge, Elway has changed the Broncos dramatically, and the direction and purpose of that change is personified by Manning.
“I think you guys got to see him today,” Tamme said. “Things are going well. I’m not going to speak for him, but it’s been fun. Offensively, I think we’ve got a chance to be good if we just keep working hard.”
“It’s different when you’ve got Peyton back there playing quarterback than most quarterbacks,” Stokley said. “Everything’s a little bit more precise, a little bit more uptempo. It’s just like I remember.”